Any collector that's been active for any period of time will have either seen or heard of an unusual coin from Europe called the "Maria Theresa thaler" (MTT is the numismatic acronym apparently) - a large silver coin with the portrait of what someone less charitable than you might well describe as a rather unattractive queen on the heads side, and two eagles with a crown and shield on the reverse.
Without actually doing any formal study into the background of this coin, I've always known that the "original" design was restruck for the better part of two hundred years, and also knew that the coins circulated (in trade and as collectibles) much father away than Austria, however I can honestly say I had absolutely no idea just how interesting the background to this incredibly common (and unattractive!) coin was.
According to an article in World Coin News, by the 1770-1780s, the MTT had permeated throughout the Middle East and were already being traded in India and China. Other silver coins circulated in the Mediterranean, but gradually the MTT achieved dominance to become known as the Levant or Levantine thaler or dollar.
By 1769, MTTs were supplanting colonial Spanish 8 reales in Ethiopia, where they were in common use for the purchase of slaves. In the interior, they were found more convenient in trade than salt or cloth.
The demand was sufficient that between 1780 and 1784 at least eight Hapsburg mints were producing restrikes using the 1780-dated SF/•X design, including Vienna, Günzberg, Karlsburg, Kremnitz, Hall and Milan. In 1783, a decree ordered all Hapsburg mints to strike this coin for anyone providing the necessary silver.
For the remainder of the 19th century, Austro-Hungarian mints continued to strike MTTs to all-comers from supplied silver - for a fee. The opening of the Suez Canal helped move MTTs through to countries bordering the Red Sea. By the last two decades of the 19th century, MTTs were becoming commonplace throughout Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia, where they were used for dowries and accepted for tax payments. The demand for the coin caused the Italians to consider minting MTTs using dies still held by the Milan and Venice Mints. They abandoned the idea when Austria expressed displeasure. Instead, Vienna struck more than 23 million MTTs in 1892-1897 to finance Italy’s colonial ambitions in North Africa.
In short, up until WWII the MTT was the most widely accepted coin throughout The Levant and North Africa. It circulated in at least Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Borneo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Java, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Mauritius, Moldovia, Morocco, Niger, Palestine, Pemba, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanganyika, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, UAE, Walachia, Yemen and Zanzibar.
Some countries counterstamped the coin to validate its acceptance as local coinage. Counterstamped thalers are recorded from Azores, Brazil, China, Java, Kuwait, Maderia, Mozambique, Pemba and the USA.
Mussolini lent heavily on Austria to allow Italy to mint its own MTTs. He cited the precedent of earlier mintings in Milan and Venice. Vienna bowed to his demands, possibly helped by Mussolini’s close friendship with Austria’s Chancellor Dollfuss. In 1935, the mint not only handed over dies to the Royal Italian Mint, but also agreed to restrict their own mintings to no more than 10,000 MTTs a year and to decline all external orders.
In the event, Rome produced 19.5 million MTTs for Italian consumption but refused to mint MTTs for other parties. This led to those merchant banks wanting to do business in the Middle East and Africa to approach non-Italian mints to produce the coins.
Britain’s Royal Mint began production in 1936 at the request of Johnson Matthey. It had sought a legal opinion before doing so. The legal-eagles concluded that, as the coin bore the portrait of a 200-year-old monarch and as the denomination had long been superseded, MTTs were simply metallic discs and not money. Further, it was held that Austria had abrogated any claim to a monopoly on MTTS when they turned dies over to Italy.
Monnaie de Paris had beaten the Royal Mint to the draw and made its own dies in 1935. However, they commenced production only in 1937 when the Royal Belgian Mint began striking MTTs for bankers Samuel Montagu.
Although Britain stopped minting MTTs officially in 1937, following an agreement with Italy, the Royal Mint certainly struck some 5,000,000 coins in 1938. The Royal Dutch Mint at Utrecht commenced striking the same year, but with the outbreak of WWII, its entire mintage was melted but for 60 coins.
With the outbreak of the war, Britain’s Royal Mint resumed minting MTTs starting in 1940. They also shipped dies to India, where between 1940 and 1942 the Bombay Mint struck nearly 19,000,000 MTTs that were primarily spent driving the Italians out of their African colonies. The coins proved acceptable to the locals throughout North Africa and the Middle East, particularly in the face of the welter of war-time paper currency being spewed out by Allied and Axis presses alike. Even the U.S. Office of Strategic Services is reported to have gotten in on the act and produced acceptable casts of MTTs, which were used in Java – among other places.
With the end of the war, the MTT continued to be recognized as legal tender in Ethiopia until the introduction of the Ethiopian dollar, when as many MTTs as possible were rounded up, shipped to the U.S. and melted to be turned into further Ethiopian dollars.
Production outside Austria continued after the war. Birmingham produced 3,500,000 for a private bank. The Royal Mint struck 5,400,000 from 1949 to 1961, Brussels 1,000,000 from 1954 to 1957, and Paris 5,500,000 in 1946 with a further 2,000,000 in 1957. Most ended up in Aden, where they were on-sold.
Austria restarted minting in 1946 but more or less stuck to its pre-war agreement with Italy of striking just 10,000 a year until that contract expired in 1960. They then asked the Royal Mint to cease production, which it did in 1961. Birmingham, Brussels and Paris had stopped in 1957.
Today the Austrian government no longer authorizes any other nation to mint MTTs. All restrikes are now produced in Vienna. Their production is largely limited to MTTs produced for collectors and jewelers. Come the turn of the millennium, the mint was striking about 10,000 a year.
Look at the list of mints and countries listed above, and it'll surely give you pause to check the next MTT you see a little more than you otherwise would - I know I certainly will.